Near the start of Martin Guerre, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg‘s much retooled musical (with lyrics by Boublil and Stephen Clark), a cannon, fired during a holy war in 16th-century France, sends out a perfect ring of smoke that floats halfway over the orchestra section before dissipating. The effect is entrancing, even as one shouldn’t put too much stock in smoke signals — as some of the play‘s hostile audiences and critics appear to be doing.

First came the news that the production’s upcoming Broadway run has been ”postponed until a suitable theater can be found.“ Martin Guerre had been slated to arrive in New York after its current engagement at the Ahmanson Theater, which comes on the heels of a national tour and extensive rewrites dating back to its 1996 London run. (When it closed there in 1998, the show was reported to have lost $8 million.)

For this American tour, 40 percent of the music, and almost all of the lyrics, have been replaced. This widely reported news appears to have had such a toxic effect, Martin Guerre might as well have arrived in a coffin. I can‘t remember another show pulling into town with such an uncharitable and unfair predisposition against it. By the start of Act 2, a few patrons from the orchestra section and many balcony dwellers were sighted on the 110 freeway, heading home. A standing ovation by those who remained was offset by protesters who sat on their hands. There hasn’t been such a transparent display of indignation and contempt in these parts since Elia Kazan picked up his Lifetime Achievement Award.

But what did Martin Guerre ever do to anybody? The poor fellow was flogged by a French priest in 1549 (according to one scene in the musical) for failing to copulate with his wife, and the flogging hasn‘t stopped since. Based on dismissive Washington, D.C., and Seattle reviews of this touring production, one of my colleagues at the Weekly refused to see the show, despite the offer of complimentary press tickets.

On hearing that Martin Guerre had received four Olivier awards in London, she replied diplomatically, ”The British are a strange and wonderful people.“ Well, yes. And Martin Guerre is a strange and wonderful musical.

The story comes from a 16th-century French trial record about the 14-year-old Martin, who left his Pyrenean Basque village of Artigat in order to fight Protestants. Years later, mortally wounded in battle (or so it seemed), he implored his best friend, Arnaud, to make his way back to Artigat, to make amends to Martin’s abandoned wife, Bertrande. Upon arriving at Artigat, Arnaud somehow passed himself off as Martin, took possession of his estate and sired children with Bertrande, who, three years after the return of her ”husband,“ filed a lawsuit against Arnaud, charging that he was an impostor. (That three-year delay arouses infinite curiosity.) The local court was about to acquit Arnaud when Martin came back from the ”dead“ to reclaim his wife, his estate and his identity — and to see Arnaud hanged.

Earlier film treatments of the story (The Return of Martin Guerre and Sommersby) have made either Martin or Arnaud roguish, infusing the saga with a layer of crust. Not so here. Decency rolls off the central characters in their very sweat. Yet Martin Guerre‘s central story involves a fascinating series of conundrums that throw easily digestible notions of rectitude and nobility right into the Seine.

Though married, at 14 Martin (Hugh Panaro) is still a child. When his bride, Bertrande (Erin Dilly), innocently confesses the non-consummation of their marriage to Father Dominic (John Herrera), he responds by lashing the devil out of the boy after tying him down to a wagon wheel. (That the kid could be gay also creates an intriguing subtext.) Then off goes Martin to war, which understandably seems to him more rewarding than marriage. The theme of infertility continues to weave through the musical, as Bertrande is blamed for year after year of drought (presumably the result of offending God by her barrenness) as she waits faithfully for Martin’s return.

To whom or what, precisely, one should be faithful is a pragmatic rather than a spiritual concern for these villagers. Upon arriving in Artigat, Arnaud (Stephen R. Buntrock) does not actually identify himself as Martin Guerre; nor does Bertrande recognize him as such. He does, however, bring the rain. For this quite practical reason, the villagers are quick to embrace him as their finally fertile prodigal son, Martin — an embrace for which Arnaud hungers. It‘s a place to fit in at last, even if his public life is a lie. Arnaud will soon pay for his encouragement of the deception, for the townsfolk will turn on him with the next change in the weather. After all, they are really pagans in Christian attire.

To charge Arnaud with assuming the role of his best friend is a stretch. Rather, he slips into it. He doesn’t so much lie as fail to tell the truth — and, by so failing, keeps Martin‘s spirit alive at the cost of his own. (There aren’t many musicals that tackle questions of honor and identity with this degree of intricacy.) Furthermore, near the end of Act 1, Bertrande and Arnaud do attempt to restrain their lust, in the marvelous duet ”Don‘t.“ After all, for them to give sway to their swiftly growing attraction is to betray their dear friend Martin Guerre — or at least his memory. Critics who dismiss this aspect of Martin Guerre for being intellectually or emotionally thin should take a good look in the mirror.

By the time Martin shows his face, Arnaud is on trial for fraud, thanks to a charge by Bertrande’s villainous, jealous suitor Guillaume (Jose Llana). Michael Arnold turns in a brilliantly agile cameo performance as the village half-wit, Benoit, a clown who scampers into the judge‘s bench at the trial, during a moment of chaos, before the Judge himself (D.C. Anderson) returns to his rightful place.

By this point, the play has become very French indeed, throwing its sympathy behind the adulterous lovers. ”You are all guilty, yet none of you is to blame,“ says the Judge — a declaration so weighty it leaves moral skid marks on the stage.

The backdrop of religious war offers a considerably less complicated view: Catholics are sanctimonious hypocrites who seek vengeance in the name of Christ. Romantically frustrated Guillaume leads the pack. In their shadow live the persecuted Protestants, ostensibly following the philosophy of Martin Luther, but who — with their do-what-you-want-just-don’t-hurt-anybody theology — really resemble modern-day Unitarians. But historical nuance, let alone accuracy, isn‘t the point here: Martin Guerre speaks in allegories, through which blaze the deranged barbarities of Belfast, Kosovo and Chechnya. This is what distinguishes it from the prior Boublil-Schonberg epics, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, which took slices of history and paraded their most hackneyed cliches for no higher purpose than exploiting their familiarity.

Musically, the play tends to overexplain its views. For example, ”Live With Somebody You Love,“ already among the sappier of the new torch songs, is given a cloying refrain. Though William David Brohn’s orchestrations have a pleasing Renaissance tonality, Schonberg‘s score consists mostly of simple, if heroic, anthems, variously accompanied, some hypnotic, some just melodically sparse. The lack of sophistication is somehow overbearing, given that Martin Guerre’s libretto is almost entirely sung. The voices, however, are spectacular, with the possible exception of Dilly, whose soprano strains in the higher registers.

Meanwhile, John Napier‘s rustic set inventively makes high-tech appear low-tech: The stage looks rather like the interior of a large, slatted barn. Each slat slides vertically, which allows for any number of configurations through which lighting designer Howard Harrison shines his beams. An emblematically off-kilter crucifix, through which Martin Guerre appears for his dubiously triumphant return, is one such illusion created by light.

The symmetry of Conall Morrison’s thoughtful staging matches the play‘s architecture, which opens and closes with the duo of Martin and Arnaud. Reviewers have complained that the actors playing these roles, and their tenor voices, are virtually indistinguishable from each other — yet another instance of people in positions of influence resolutely missing the point.

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